Indiana coroners may be miscounting opioid overdose deaths

Brad Ray, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research at IU, talks March 13, 2018, about studying Indiana's death reporting systems. (WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The state of Indiana may be seriously undercounting the amount of opioid overdose deaths, and one researcher said the problem begins at county coroners’ offices.

Brad Ray, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research at Indiana University, has been studying Indiana’s death reporting systems and comparing them to the rest of the nation, under the backdrop of a national opioid epidemic.

“A lot of people are dying from opioids. And how do we reduce the number of people dying? That needs to continue to be our question,” Ray said.

Ray said part of the problem is Indiana does not have a clear picture of how many people are dying from opioid overdoses. According to Ray’s research, in 2016, the state of Indiana reported 713 opioid-involved drug overdoses. However in that same year, 471 accidental drug overdose deaths went as “unclassified,” composing 36 percent of drug overdose deaths that year. Ray said, in previous years, the “unspecified” numbers have been even higher.

“Less than 1 percent of deaths in Connecticut have unspecified codes. Fifth percent of deaths here are unspecified,” said Ray, referring to data from 2011-2014 in Indiana. “The main difference being, it’s a totally different death investigation system. So to really solve the data problem, it may require an overhaul of how we investigate death in our state.”

There are efforts to fix the reporting system. Last week, the Indiana House and Senate both approved Senate Enrolled Act 139, which would require coroners test for opioid overdoses in suspicious deaths. It allocates funding for the extra toxicology tests from the state’s coroner training fund; however, it does not affect the cause-of-death statements on death certificates but does require data be sent to the state Department of Health.

SEA 139 author state Sen. Jim Merritt, an Indianapolis Republican, told 24-Hour News 8 there are many cause-of-death problems in the state and this is just a step forward, with many more to follow in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions. Merritt said he agrees there needs to be more tools, more training and more screenings to accurately report opioid overdoses in Indiana.

IU’s Ray said the state’s lack of accurate reporting is costing the state money in lost grants and federal funding.

While Ray’s research concludes Marion County has also under-reported opioid overdose deaths, he said, the Marion County Coroner’s Office has been very helpful and proactive about training county coroners in cause-of-death procedures and reporting.

SEA 139 was expected to arrive at the governor’s desk soon, and Gov. Eric Holcomb was expected to sign it.